Equivocating on Dialectics

Chris Matthew Sciabarra has achieved some herostratic fame by claiming that Ayn Rand – her own protestations to the contrary notwithstanding – was a “dialectical thinker”. What does he mean by “dialectical” here? I will let him speak for himself:

Throughout the history of philosophy the term “dialectics” has been used in many different senses. Aristotle recognized dialectic and rhetoric as counterparts of each other; for him, rhetoric was the art of public speaking, or the “faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion”, whereas dialectic was the art of logical discussion and argumentation. In dialectic, the interlocutor proceeds from accepted (or specific) propositions and argues toward a more basic (or general) conclusion. Although mastery of this dialectic technique was the hallmark of Socratic and Platonic philosophy, Aristotle argued that it was insufficient for establishing scientific truth. Nevertheless, he valued the dialectic because it demanded the study of questions from multiple vantage points. It is for this reason, perhaps, that Marx, Engels, and Lenin recognized Aristotle as the father of dialectical inquiry. Engels, in fact, called Aristotle “the Hegel of the ancient world”, who “had already analyzed the most essential forms of dialectic thought”. And Lenin argued that within Aristotle lies “the living germs of dialectics and inquiries about it”. (Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical, p. 15f.)

Now, Plato’s philosophy is called “dialectic” simply because it was presented in the form of dialogues. And Sciabarra immediately forgets the truth he spoke in the first sentence: that the term “dialectics” has been used in many different senses – or else, he thinks that all those different senses are actually the very same sense. He continues:

More than two thousand years after Aristotle’s death, Hegel developed a conception of dialectics as an ontological and historical process. Hegel’s dialectical method affirms the impossibility of logical contradiction and focuses instead on relational “contradictions” or paradoxes revealed in the dynamism of history. For Hegel, opposing concepts could be identified as merely partial views whose apparent contradictions could be transcended by exhibiting them as internally related within a larger whole. From pairs of opposing theses, elements of truth could be extracted and integrated into a third position. Other philosophers saw this form of dialectics as a triadic movement in which the conflict of “thesis” and “antithesis” is resolved through “synthesis”. Dialectical materialists place this process on an economic foundation and used it as the basis for a philosophy of history. (Ibidem, p. 16.)

Now, this is a widely different sense from both Plato’s and Aristotle’s.

Hegel begins his dialectics by analyzing the widest possible of all concepts, namely “being”. To be is to be something: a thing may be red or blue or some other color; it may be quiet or noisy; it may be large – such as a solar system, a galaxy or the entire universe; or it may be small – as a speck of dust, an atom or an elementary particle; etcetera, etcetera, ad infinitum. When we form the concept “being” – says Hegel – we abstract away from all those qualifications, until there is nothing left. Then the concept “being” turns into its opposite, the concept “nothing”. And then – lo and behold! – those concepts merge into the concept “becoming” – where “nothing” turns into “something” (or “something” turns into “nothing”).[1]

And what on earth does this have in common with Aristotle?

Aristotle called an argument, or a line of reasoning, demonstrative, when the premises are certain, and dialectical, when the premises are uncertain or disputed. In his own words:

Now a deduction is an argument in which, certain things being laid down, something other than these necessarily comes about through them. It is a demonstration, when the premisses from which the deduction starts are true and primitive,[2] or are such that our knowledge of them has originally come through premisses which are primitive and true; and it is a dialectical deductions, if it reasons from reputable opinions. Things are true and primitive which are convincing on the strength not of anything else but themselves; for in regard to the first principles of science it is improper to ask any further for the why and wherefore of them; each of the first principles should command belief in and by itself. On the other hand, those opinions are reputable which are accepted by everyone or by the majority or by the wise – i.e. by all, or by the majority, or by the most notable and reputable of them. Again, a deduction is contentious if it starts from opinions that seem to be reputable, but are not really such, or again if it merely seems to reason from opinions that are or seem to be reputable. For not every opinion which we call reputable actually is reputable. (The very beginning of Topics, p. 167 in The Complete Works of Aristotle, ed. by Jonathan Barnes, Vol. 1; translated by W.A. Pickard-Cambridge; also available on the web.)

Aristotle being a reputable philosopher, we can at least argue dialectically with him! Hegelians ­– and Marxists – on the other hand are impossible to argue with, since they will turn everything one says into its exact opposite; hoping – I presume – for some synthesis to come out of it.

But the point is that Aristotle’s dialectics and Hegel’s have only the name in common. Sciabarra’s whole reasoning is based on an enormous equivocation or package deal.

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What, then, did Ayn Rand herself have to say about dialectics? Not much. The only thing that comes to my mind is that Floyd Ferris, in Atlas Shrugged, once accused Fred Kinnan of being unable to think dialectically. And – in case you have not read the book – Floyd Ferris is one of the worst villains, while Fred Kinnan is the best of the villains.

She certainly opposed Hegel’s philosophy – this is almost a “true and primitive” statement.. Not that she ever read him – she once wrote:

And no one has ever read Hegel (even though many have looked at every word on his every page). (Philosophy: Who Needs It, p. 143; italics mine.)

Well, I have not looked at every word on his every page; but I have read what he wrote about “being”, “nothing” and “becoming”.[3]

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I have not thought about Sciabarra for ages. The reason I do it now is a couple of Facebook discussions about a comment on his book, written by Anoop Verma.

My Swedish readers may recall that I wrote some criticisms of Sciabarra in the late 90s. If you happen to know Swedish, you may read Nattväktaren, årgång 2, nr 6, årgång 2, nr 9, årgång 3, nr 7 och årgång 3, nr 10–11.

For another critical appraisal, read James G. Lennox’s review. John Ridpath also wrote a highly critical review in The Intellectual Activist, but only a short summary is available on the web.

And here is a comment on Facebook by Brad Aisa, with which I concur:

That book is intellectual claptrap. The first, largely biographical section was interesting. But once he gets into the meat of his thesis it breaks down utterly. His entire schtick is taking two things with an inessential common attribute, then trying to claim fundamental parity. The sundry ideologies he tries to claim formed a basis for Rand’s own ideas are utterly opposite of Objectivism in every important way.


[1] In case you wonder what is wrong with this reasoning, I refer you to Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology:

A widespread error […] holds that the wider the concept, the less its cognitive content – on the ground that its distinguishing characteristic is more generalized. The error lies in assuming that a concept consists of nothing but its distinguishing characteristic. (P. 26 in the expanded second edition)

[2] ”Primitive” here means ”primary”.

[3] You can read what he writes in an English translation here.

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Ayn Rand’s Philosophical Achievement

Recently, Anoop Verma wrote a blog post, Ayn Rand’s Copernican Revolution in Philosophy, and then privately asked for my feedback. I have very little to criticize in his post; but it gives me an opportunity to present my own view.

In my view, the most fundamental thing about Ayn Rand’s philosophy is the insight that all knowledge is the result of the interaction between existence and consciousness, between the external world and our minds.

Sensation and perception are the result of the interaction between the external world and our senses. Concept formation are the result of our identification of the facts of reality. And values are a matter of relating what we value (or disvalue) to our life and well-being. (Politics is about applying ethics to our social life.)

This is even true about esthetics; her definition of art is

a selective re-creation of reality according to an artist’s metaphysical value-judgements. (“Art and Cognition” in The Romantic Manifesto.)

A re-creation of reality, not of something outside of reality.

Obviously, this is not an exhaustive presentation of her philosophy, but it is something that has always struck me. With the partial exception of Aristotle (and his followers), I don’t think other philosophers have even come close to this insight. Platonism, for example, is clearly about our “interaction” with a mystical realm; and Kant’s philosophy is a variation on this theme.

In ethics, there are basically two views:

  1. That ethics is a matter of obeying divine commandments, or duties, as they are often called.

  2. That they are a matter of what we feel is right or wrong, and that those feelings are not connected to reality – that there is an unbridgeable gulf between “is” and “ought” and all that kind of jazz.[1]

And in politics the idea that we have to choose between tyranny (totalitarianism) and anarchy.

Immanuel Kant’s Philosophical Non-Achievements

The philosophy of Ayn Rand is commonly contrasted with that of Immanuel Kant; Ayn Rand herself did:

On every fundamental issue, Kant’s philosophy is the exact opposite of Objectivism. (“Brief Summary”, The Objectivist, September 1971.)

She also wrote:

[Kant’s] argument, in essence, ran as follows: […] man is blind, because he has eyes – deaf, because he has ears – deluded, because he has a mind – and the things he perceives do not exist, because he perceives them. (The title essay in For the New Intellectual.)

It is often forgotten (or so it seems to me) that those are not Immanuel Kant’s own words; they are Ayn Rand’s summary of his epistemology. Objectivists take this description ad notam; they do not bother to read Kant and verify it.[2]

It is a common misunderstanding that Kant denied the evidence of the senses; in fact, he defended the senses, and he even gave proper arguments.[3]

Kant makes three points about the senses:

  1. The senses do not confuse us. If we are confused, it is our understanding of what the senses provide us with that is confused.
  2. The senses do not rule over the understanding; they are rather the servants of the understanding.
  3. The senses do not deceive or betray us. Again, it is only our understanding that may be mistaken.

He does however say that what the senses provide us with is “appearances”, not true (“noumenal”) reality.

Also, Kant did believe in the existence of an external world, although he claimed that it is inaccessible to us. His argument ran as follows: We live in a world of appearances; but there cannot be appearances without things that appear; thus those things must exist somewhere and somehow; but we can never know where or how.

But Kant would not be Kant, if he thought this was all there is to it. Although the senses give us valid information, he thought that space and time do not come to us through the senses; they are, as he called them, “form of appearance” (“Anschauungsformen” in German), through which the sense data are “filtered”. Rather than being part of our experience of the world, space and time are supplied by our own mind and are necessary “a priori” conditions for having experience at all.

I regard this view as ridiculous. We form the concepts “space” and “time” by observing a variety of special and temporal relationships (“the book is on the table”, “it happened yesterday”, etc. etc.) “Space” and “time” refer to the sum of those relationships.[4]

This should be enough for now (an “ought” and a temporal specification).

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(See also Rand Debating Kant and Evil Thoughts?. – Unfortunately (for most of you), almost everything I have written about Kant is in Swedish.)

Update March 29: I have now written a fairly extensive English blog post about Kant.


[1] Scandinavian speaking readers may read my recent blog posts about Axel Hägerström. Or Gastronomi och moral.

[2] There may be exceptions; if you are such an exception, I apologize.

[3] I found this out by perusing (I worked in a library of old books) Anthropologie in pragmatischer Hinsicht (Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View). Unfortunately, I cannot find an English translation of this passage in the book.

[4] Neither, by the way, did Kant ever say things like ”it is true, because I feel it’s true” – quite the contrary! In Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, he goes to some length explaining that the categorical imperative is not a matter of emotion but of reasoning. And in Religion Within the Boundaries of Mere Reason, one will find – buried among all the talk of selfishness or self-love being the “radical evil” of human nature – the short and simple sentence: “Emotions are not knowledge”.